A Moroccan court has fined the country's leading newspaper a record 6.0 million dirhams ($815,900 ($NZ1.02 million), after it mistakenly alleged a judge had attended a gay wedding party in the Muslim country.
The editor said the paper would appeal the verdict and expressed concern that the authorities were using the courts to try and shut down a troublesome critic.
Last November, Al Massae was the first Moroccan newspaper to publish a report about a party held following an illegal gay wedding in the northern town of Ksar el Kebir.
It quoted a police source saying that an unnamed judge in the town attended the party, a sensitive issue in Morocco's mostly conservative society.
Homosexual acts are banned by law and Islamists condemned the gay party as an attack on public morals in Morocco, where court verdicts are pronounced in the name of the king, whose titles include that of "commander of the faithful".
Al Massae apologised for suggesting a judge was present at the gay party, after its police source informed the paper that the judge had been confused with a person with the same name.
The paper did not name the judge in its report and all four Ksar el Kebir judges sued the newspaper for defamation. A Rabat court on Tuesday ordered al Massae to pay them 1.5 million dirhams each.
Critics say al Massae, Morocco's most widely-read newspaper, has chased after readers with a populist tone that has come at the expense of accuracy and good sourcing.
But the paper's editor Tawfik Bouechrine said al Massae was in fact being punished for its aggressive reporting on corruption and human rights abuses.
"This is the first time since Morocco's independence 52 years ago that a court has sentenced a newspaper to such a hefty fine," said Bouechrine told reporters.
"The government is hiding behind the court to close the newspaper. It is sending a message to the media that it will not tolerate press freedom," he said.
Rights activists have repeatedly accused the government of using the judiciary to stifle media freedom by jailing journalists or heavily fining newspapers, charges the government denies.